Erik Johansson's impossible images delight and provoke thought

"Fishy Island" by Erik Johansson
This image by Erik Johansson includes a real fish he caught himself. It is used as the poster image for "Imagine" Surreal Photography by Erik Johansson at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis.
Erik Johansson | Courtesy of the American Swedish Institute

The American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis gets a little surreal this weekend. From now till the end of April, it will display huge photographs by artist Erik Johansson that show physically impossible things designed to provoke thought.

One photograph takes the viewer to an island with a bucolic Swedish village, complete with red-walled houses near the shore. But the island is actually the back of a gigantic fish just below the surface. Another photo is of a two-lane blacktop winding through farm fields, but the road splits like a zipper along the center line, sending the two sides curling off into the sky.

"Cut and Fold" by Erik Johansson.
In this image created by Erik Johansson titled "Cut and Fold," a highway becomes a gigantic zipper pulling apart the landscape.
Erik Johansson | Courtesy of the American Swedish Institute

These and more than 20 other works by Johansson are now dotted around the ornate interior of the American Swedish Institute.

The institute's President Bruce Karstadt said Johansson's work fits well with its celebration of Swedish culture and this year's focus on the environment.

"A Swede responding to his relationship with land. Erik is a farmer — could have been a sixth-generation farmer — and instead jumps into digital technology," Karstadt said.

Growing up on that farm in southern Sweden, Johansson said he taught himself photo manipulation using his father's computer.

"I think I really learned a lot by failing and trying in many ways," he said. "It's been a quite long process to get to where I am today."

Speaking from his home in Prague in the Czech Republic, Johansson said he has always been fascinated by the great surrealist painters.

"It became the challenge to try to create something similar with photography, instead of painting it," he said.

Johansson's images look real as though he's just come upon each scene, camera in hand, and quickly snapped a couple of shots. Yet each one is impossible, a careful creation, months — if not years — in the making.

"Ninety-five percent of the time, it starts with a simple sketch or a simple thought in my head and then I go out and capture all the different material and images that I need to create the idea," he said.

Johansson only uses his own photographs to stitch together his works.

"Impact" by Erik Johansson.
"Impact" by Erik Johansson. He creates his surreal images using photographs he makes around the area in southern Sweden where he grew up. He then builds the new image out of dozens if not hundreds of layers digitally edited together.
Erik Johansson | Courtesy of the American Swedish Institute

For a piece called "Impact," he played with the idea of a lake having a mirror-like surface. The image shows a man stepping out of a canoe, his foot resting on giant shards of broken glass in a dry lake bed as the water ripples out into the distance behind him.

Some of his pictures play with perspective, such as the one where a flat road takes a 90-degree turn straight down, as a worried cyclist peers over the edge. In another farm fields tumble like a waterfall over a precipice. He said these illusions are very complicated to render with photographs.

"Because then you try to create a place that really can't exist," he said. "And you really have to make sure you capture each part of the scene in the right perspective and at the same time you also need each part to be lit in the same way to make it look like it will really come together into one image."

Johansson said he plans for weeks before going out to shoot.

He gathers all his images in the rural area of Sweden where he grew up, so he needs to plan travel time, too.

"Shooting the material I need perhaps takes around one day, and putting all the pieces together takes around three to five days efficient time."

By that he means if he did it all at once, but he often jumps between several images, letting some percolate in his mind as he focuses on the details of another. He builds his pictures from the back, placing one on top of the other.

"Between 100 and 200 layers," he said.

"Demand and Supply" by Erik Johansson.
"Demand and Supply" by Erik Johansson.
Erik Johansson | Courtesy of the American Swedish Institute

Johansson's images are spectacular, and are even more eye-catching set against the gold and velvet of the institute. The images on display can be interpreted as a commentary on human impact on the environment, but Johansson said he wants people to make up their own minds.

"Usually the title that I put on the image is somehow a little bit of a clue of what it is I want to say with the image," he said. "But usually I just leave it at that and let the viewer make up their own interpretation."

Or visitors may ask Johansson directly: He will be at the American Swedish Institute on opening weekend.

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